Wednesday, September 8, 2010

Movies Under the Stars: A Tribute to My Favorite Drive-in Theaters

I've known film buffs who would never consider watching a movie at a drive-in theater. They frown at the poor sound systems, damaged screens, unexpected bad weather, pesky insects, and extraneous noises (e.g., honking horns, loud teens, etc.). These distractions are all certainly legimate...and yet I love the experience of watching a movie under the stars. Ironically, my two favorite drive-in theaters are both named the Starlite.

Note the movies! (photo copyright by R. Armstrong). 
The Starlite Drive-in Theater in Elizabeth-town, Kentucky, suffered the same fate as most outdoor theaters:  It was torn down in the 1990s and replaced with the Starlite Shopping Center. But for many summers, my wife and I enjoyed watching double-features just a couple of miles from our house. Unlike many drive-ins, the Starlite was located in the city proper, which unfortunately made it more valuable as real estate than as a business venture.

During our first visit there, we were greatly puzzled to see that there were no carside speakers. We quickly learned that the sound was broadcast over a radio frequency. We turned on our radio as directed and then spent three-and-a-half hours hoping that the questionable battery in our Chevy Nova (metallic green....millions of them were manufactured) would start. It did--but, after that, we always took a little battery-powered radio with us.

We saw many movies at the Starlite for free since I was writing free-lance film reviews for the local newspaper in those days. For a young couple on a budget, the price was perfect and we had a grand time watching movies ranging from Trading Places to Fast Times at Ridgemont High to The Evil Dead. It was a sad day when the Starlite's closure was announced. The family that operated it owned another drive-in, the Knox, in a nearby town. The Knox Drive-in survived another decade, but was demolished around 2003.

There were just two drive-in theaters in Bloomington, Indiana: the Y&W and the Starlite. The Y&W, located on the way out of town (if heading to Indy), was probably the larger of the two. I went there a few times in college. A friend and I saw a double feature of Phantasm and Horror High (a teen version of Dr. Jekyll & Mr. Hyde). At the concession stand, they offered Ghoul Brew, a mysterious beverage featuring lots of dry ice so that it'd look creepy. Anyway, it was free and we were thirsty and poor. All I can say is the stuff tasted nasty! My wife and I also patronized the Y&W as newlyweds (we thought we were the only adults at The Fox and the Hound until we met friends from the university office where I worked).

The Starlite Drive-in in Bloomington, IN, courtesy of
The best Bloom-ington drive-in—indeed, probably, our all-time favorite—was the Starlite Drive-in Theatre. It was located outside of town and appeared to be carved out of a forest. Dense trees surrounded it, blocking out any light from the road. As a result, the stars were brilliant on a clear summer night.

My first visit to the Starlite was probably when my friend Terry and I saw Count Dracula and His Vampire Bride. We were surprised to learn that Hammer Films, which quit making movies in 1976, had produced a new Christopher Lee Dracula pic. But once we start watching the movie, we recognized the plot as belonging to The Satanic Rites of Dracula (a 1973 Hammer film never released in the U.S.). Yes, the 1973 movie had been retitled and finally released in the States! Oddly, neither title made much sense in respect to the plot. My wife and I loved going to the Starlite, which is where we saw movies like Ragtime, The Watcher in the Woods, and Unidentified Flying Oddball (surely the bottom half of a doubleheader).

I'm pleased to say that Bloomington's Starlite Drive-in Theatre is still in business ( Long live the American drive-in! Do you have any fond memories of drive-in theaters?


  1. Rick, my tiny city had a small movie theatre years ago (my brother saw RAIDERS OF THE LOST ARK there), but it unfortunately burned down. So for the longest time, we've only had the Holiday Drive-In. I missed the drive-in heyday, where they'd run small-budgeted indie flicks you might not otherwise have the chance to see, so the only movies shown by the time I was a teen were A-productions courtesy of Hollywood. Still, dropping a five for my wife and I to see a double feature is great, and sitting in a car and watching a film projected on a giant screen is a wonderful experience. The Holiday has threatened to close a number of times, but I'm happy to say that, as of 2010, it's still going strong. Thanks, Rick, for sharing your memories! By the way, your picture of the Starlite is beautiful. GATES OF HELL is the U.S. title of Italian horror guru Lucio Fulci's CITY OF THE LIVING DEAD with Christopher George. The "co-hit," FUNERAL HOME, is one of the many slashers of the '80s, starring Lesleh Donaldson, who also starred in the slashers HAPPY BIRTHDAY TO ME and CURTAINS.

  2. What a wonderful tribute to the outdoor theater! The Starlite is a perfect name for a drive-in and isn't it interesting that both chose to use the spelling "lite" rather than "light"? I really enjoyed the pictures you posted, too. The Elizabethtown picture is especially quaint, despite the double feature!
    When I was in high school people would talk about going to the outdoor, which of course meant the outdoor theater. My fiance and I used to like to take a pizza and soda with us. There was a restaurant that made a remarkable stuffed pizza that you would have to order an hour in advance. It was awesome and tasted especially good at the outdoor. Great post, Rick!

  3. Toto, a stuffed pizza at the drive-in sounds awesome (and very yummy)! Sark, you are so right that drive-in theaers provided the opportunity to see lesser-known films (especially the second and third features of the evening). These days, those movies go straight to video and you never get to see them on a big screen. Plus, I'm not even sure I would have rented a film like THE EVIL (1978). But I saw that Richard Crenna flick as a second feature and it was pretty good. My favorite drive-in doublefeature was when my girlfriend (eventual wife) and I went to a twin drive-in and saw KRAMER VS. KRAMER on one screen and then drove to the other screen to see ENTER THE DRAGON. She had seen KRAMER before and I'd seen DRAGON before. It was fun night!

  4. Rick, I loved the drive-in theatres and I miss them a lot. There were quite a few in Indianapolis when I grew up and was a teenager and young adult. I can remember seeing The Exorcist for the first time at the Shadeland Drive-In and being scared out of my wits. It was a double feature, but I don't remember what the second movie was because my boyfriend and I spent that movie necking. Those were the innocent, romantic days when a boyfriend and girlfriend would turn the sound on the speaker down and spend hours in the car just kissing until the windows would steam up and you got a rash on your neck. Great times! After I was married and had babies, when my husband was working nights, I would take my baby boys to the drive-ins in their pajamas, with a snack and pillows and blankets. They usually went to sleep in the back and I watched both movies. Those drive-ins are all gone now except for one that I know of which is out far west of Indianapolis. They were wonderful experiences. Wish those times were back...

  5. Rick, I love drive-in theatres too. There was one in the town I live in that was great. Before my husband and I married, the drive-in theatre was a cheap date and we popped our own popcorn to save money. We always saw the double feature. I become a big Chuck Norris fan watching his early movies. Once we were watching a movie in early April and it started snowing. We had to use the wind shield wipers to see the movie. We saw The Sting there too. We thought the movie was moving fast and felt like we missed something. Like Becky said we kissed a lot so that was possible. Then the owner informed everyone the film reels were out of order. We had seen the beginning and end of the movie. We got free passes to go and see it in the correct order. After we married, we took our infant son with us. We would take him in his pajamas and when he went to sleep, we put him in a box in the back seat and watched the movie. He slept through every movie except Poltergeist. He was fussy and didn't fall asleep until the last 10 mins. of the movie. I always think of that whenever I watch that movie. Saddly a tornado destroyed the screen and the owners didn't have any insurance to rebuilt it. I still miss it. I enjoyed your article very much.

  6. Becky, I loved your story about taking your kids--in pajamas in the backseat--to the drive-in! Alas, my family seldom went to the drive-in when I was young. There was a drive-in not far from our house called the Robinhood (it was located on Robinhood Dad hated that Robin Hood was spelled as one word). We did see THE SON OF CAPTAIN BLOOD there--it starred Errol Flynn's son Sean in the title role (he died while freelancing as a photojournalist in Cambodia). I used to enjoy reading the drive-in movie ads in the newspaper--the outdoor theatres always seemed to get the exciting movies (e.g., I AM CURIOUS (YELLOW)..."Banned in 32 countries!"). Once I saw an ad for an Ingmar Bergman movie (which no doubt surprised some drive-in patrons). I proudly pointed out to my parents that the newspaper had spelled Ingrid's first name incorrectly!

  7. Aki, that's funny about the reels being out of order (although I'm embarrassed to say I did that once while showing a movie in college). I also saw some of Chuck's movies at a drive-in (including CODE OF SILENCE, which is probably my fave of his films).

  8. Rick, you really triggered a memory about I Am Curious (Yellow). I wanted to see that movie so bad, everybody in school did, but my Dad absolutely freaked and put his foot down about that one. I think I was about 15. To this day I still haven't seen it. Wasn't it Swedish or something? We had the Fox Theatre here in Indianapolis, originally a burlesque theatre for striptease, then showing dirty movies when I was growing up and they showed a lot of Swedish films! LOL. I never got to see the inside of that theatre, that's for sure.

  9. Yes, Becky, I AM CURIOUS (YELLOW) was Swedish. Its semi-sequel was I AM CURIOUS (BLUE). Why the colors in the titles? Yellow and blue are the colors of Sweden's flag.

  10. I fondly remember the dusk till dawn drive-in marathons. Well, I suppose I don't remember some of them since I was usually asleep by 4 or so.